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Society | Human rights

Zimbabwe approves NGO Act despite protests

afrol News, 10 December - The controversial Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Bill has been passed by Zimbabwe's parliament and now only awaits the signature of President Robert Mugabe. The bill has caused widespread protest in Zimbabwe and abroad as it places severe restrictions on the activities of NGOs and human rights groups, in particular if they are financed from abroad.

Among the contentious issues in the NGO Act are the ban on foreign funding, the composition of a new government-led NGO Council, registration as well as the definition of governance, which most organisations say are "too broad" to encompass all civil society activities. The NGO Act specifically targets organisations that "promote and protect human rights".

When presented in September, the Bill caused widespread disbelief and protest among Zimbabwean NGOs. More than 20 Zimbabwean civic bodies and churches, said the draft was a repressive piece of legislation. The law would actually make government-related organisations of the country's NGOs and churches, the groups held.

While Zimbabwean NGOs today adopted a wait-and-see approach to the new Act, the human rights group Amnesty International strongly protested, saying it was "outraged". The law bans foreign human rights organisations, such as Amnesty, from working in Zimbabwe and could be used to close down local human rights groups.

- The law is a direct attack on human rights in Zimbabwe and should be immediately repealed, Kolawole Olaniyan, Director of Amnesty's Africa Program, urged today. "Preventing local NGOs from receiving foreign funding for human rights work would effectively mean the end of many vital human rights programmes, as there is so little local funding available," he added.

Amnesty said it believed that the legislation would be applied selectively, as had been the case with other repressive legislation introduced in Zimbabwe over the last four years. The Media Information Commission established by the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) had already overseen severe repression of independent media in Zimbabwe.

- If the NGO Act is enforced across the board, tens of thousands of people being assisted by NGO programmes could suffer, Mr Olaniyan said. "Reputable and dedicated human rights organisations in Zimbabwe provide vital medical and psychological care and legal advice to victims of human rights violations. Most victims have nowhere else to turn in a country where unemployment is above 70 percent and the health service has been severely eroded," he added.

Protests also came from foreign governments. The US State Department today condemned the new Zimbabwean legislation. Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said that "this law, if signed by President Mugabe, will stifle political debate in the exercise of civil liberties in Zimbabwe by preventing international human rights groups from operating there."

- In our view, this bill is an assault on civil society and an attempt to curtail political discussion in Zimbabwe, the US government spokesman said. "It is yet another sign that the government of Zimbabwe may not be serious about holding free and fair parliamentary elections in March 2005, and we call upon President Mugabe not to sign this bill. That's our view of it."

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